How Mental Health is Perceived in the African Context and Why it is a Problem

For a long time, one of my neighbours in the village talked about committing suicide. I even remember, at one point sometimes back, he took some drug overdose but fortunately, he was rushed to hospital, and doctors saved him. Just last month, I received news that he had passed on. He died after taking rat poison. After many years of talking about it, he finally went ahead with his plan and was successful. Sad! Right?

Well, that was not the sad part, when the villagers received the news of his death. Word went around that evil spirits were now after his family. To bring the situation into perspective, the villagers refer to her mother as the village witch. They say she is responsible for destroying people’s families and homes.

Whenever she sees someone doing well, be it in career, business, education, or familywise, she will go to great lengths to see that they are destroyed. That’s what people in the village say.

His death was the second in the family in one month. Further convincing people that the spirits she was using to destroy other people’s homes had turned on her. They now wanted blood from her family.

The case in my village represents mental health scenarios in the African context. In fact, for a majority of these communities, mental health does not exist. It is always witchcraft.

The story also captures the general attitude that officials and ordinary people hold towards an illness now considered a global epidemic.

Mental Health Statistics Across African Countries

In Kenya, one of the most stable countries in the continent, research indicates that 1 out of 4 persons have a mental condition. These conditions include schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, and depression.

The worst part is that the country lacks the facility and capability to handle the situation as it only has about 80 psychiatrists and 30 clinical psychologists for a population of 40 million people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the country only spends about 0.05% of its health budget on mental health.

The situation is not much different in other African countries. In South Africa, 75% of mentally ill patients have no access to psychiatric or therapeutic care. The country suffers this incapability despite being considered better off having 22 psychiatric hospitals and 36 psychiatric wards in general hospitals. Inequality in terms of health care provision still exists as these facilities only serve 14% of the 53 million people.

In Nigeria, an oil-rich country, WHO estimates indicate that less than 10% of mentally ill citizens have access to health care. Only about 130 psychiatrists are serving a population of 140 million people. Further research indicates that 40–60 million Nigerians have a mental illness.

A Brief Analysis of the Situation

Due to structural, cultural, and systematic barriers, mental illness is a silent epidemic in Africa. Mental illness is a non-issue as most governments, policymakers, and funders have concentrated on infectious diseases that plague the continent, such as malaria, cancer, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The effect is inadequate health care infrastructure, insufficient number of mental health practitioners, lack of mental health awareness, and limited access to all levels of mental care.

In addition, people prefer to suffer in silence due to the stigma and discrimination they will suffer when they come out publicly.

As long as the governments turn a blind eye to the situation on the ground, suicide rates will continue to rise as well as the number of vagrants in our streets.

Let us raise our voices and speak about mental health as its menace.

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